2001: A Space Odyssey - Vue Cinemas, The Printworks, Manchester.

One may well ask why I should want to review a film which is being shown at selected cinemas across the country this year, 50 years after it was first released. It's a fair question; and one that can only be answered by saying that in so doing I am myself rediscovering a masterpiece of modern cinematic history. This film by acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick was filmed long before CGI and other technical advances were even thought of, and yet it still defines the genre and is still, for me at least, the ultimate sci-fi film.

Using film techniques and directing techniques which were considered avant-garde at the time - the first twenty minutes of the film is wordless. (unless you count the grunts and squeals of apes to be words). and his use of classical music such as the iconic 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' by Richard Strauss for the opening sequence and Johann Strauss's 'Blue Danube Waltz' for the spacecraft sequences.

This isn't a remastered or edited edition of the film either; this is exactly how it was a demi-decade ago, and it still has the power to shock, surprise and amaze.

For those unlucky enough not to know the story, it is based on a short novel by Arthur C. Clarke in which Dr. Dave Bowman (played with understated earnestness by Keir Dullea) is sent on a mission to discover why a giant black monolith has appeared on the moon. Has evolution really gone so far, and if so, why do we (in 2001 - the future) not know about it. Bowman and his all-knowing computer HAL [apparently (perhaps apocryphally) so-named because they are one letter away from IBM]  soon start to disagree and the winner of this race will win the 'knowledge' - whatever that may be. The film starts in Africa millions of years in the past and we see apes behaving as we expect apes to behave - however when one of these black monoliths appears they start to display disturbing behaviours which are violent and a little too human. It is a story about evolution; human evolution. But it is first and foremost, as the title bolding advises, an odyssey. Many have tried to analyse and give meaning to this film, and who knows, they may well be right. It is deliberately enigmatic, slow moving and thought-provoking.

Fortunately this film was made independently and without the clasp of 'Hollywood'. It stands alone as a testament to the sheer virtuosity of a man who had a vision and kept his vision a secret until its official unveiling, and even now, the film has some of the best special effects of any film, and remains unique in its desire and succeeding of that desire to make the audience think for themselves, to wonder and to question; rather than having all the answers handed to you on a pre-prepared Hollywood plate with short scenes interspersed with banal mood music. 

There are hundreds of excellent 5 star reviews and pices of critical analysis out there, all gloryifying and lauding this film, so I am able to add little or nothing to these, except to say that in my opinion, Kubrick was a true genius, and this is cinematic gold. Even if sci-fi isn't really your thing, this film should still be scene as a masterclass in cinematography and despite the advancements made in film over the years; there still has not been a sci-fi film to even come close.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 4/6/18

If.... - HOME, Manchester.

Concluding HOME’s Uprising! Spirit of ’68 season of films to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris uprisings in May 1968, Lindsay Anderson’s anarchic drama satirising English public-school life still packs a hefty punch half a century on.

Malcolm McDowell takes the lead role as Mick Travis, a sixth former at College House. Travis has a reputation for kicking against the system, upon his arrival at the start of the new term he is referred to as “Guy Fawkes”. His rebellion is against the conservative and restrictive boarding school life, where there is a clear hierarchy among the students from the “whips” who are the House prefects to the new, younger students referred to as “scum.”  If…. was McDowell’s first film but he delivers such a confident performance, full of bravado, that it was no accident that Stanley Kubrick cast him as Alex in his controversial film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange in 1971.

Of note is the scene where Travis and his friends Knightley and Wallace, are punished by the whips for their disruptive behaviour: Knightley and Wallace are subjected to four blows of the cane each and when Travis comes in for his turn, he enters with a knowing smile, certain that he can endure four strikes of the cane. However, he is subjected to a longer punishment. When it is over he slowly stands up right and wipes the tears from his eyes before turning around, walking up to the man who had administered the beating, shaking his hand and thanking him. McDowell conveys the air of someone who is close to breaking point but is just about keeping it together. It’s a wonderful performance. 

The film is noted for its formal experimentation which, like other films HOME chose for their season, owes a fair bit to Brecht’s theory of ‘Epic Theatre’. If…. is split into eight sections, each preceded by a title card. There is also a shift between colour cinematography and black and white cinematography which produces a startling effect which breaks the illusion that what we are seeing is real (despite believable performances from the cast). This is an interesting technique, albeit one which was motivated by practical matters rather than outright artistic temperament: pressed for time at a location being used for the school’s chapel, Anderson decided to light the scene for filming on black and white film stock rather than the colour stock the rest of the film had been shot in. Anderson, however, decided to commit to the idea and shot other scenes in black and white as well. Most notably, many of the black and white scenes have a more dreamlike, surreal feeling to them than the colour sequences do: the scene in the gymnasium where a junior boy, Philips, is transfixed by Wallace performing a gymnastic routine (which foreshadows a relationship between them0. Another striking black and white scene features Travis and Knightley entering a café after absconding from the school rugby match where they are served coffee by a young woman (nameless, referred to in the credits as The Girl) and Travis violently kisses her; The Girl slaps him but then approaches him and the two pretend to be tigers and fight and wrestle each other. One moment they are fully clothed, the next naked, with the audience unsure if the wrestling continues into sex or if the whole thing is just in Travis’s head (The Girl makes further reappearances in the film but she often appears out of thin air, as though she were the figment of Travis’ imagination).

If…. also contains some absurd humour: in one scene, House Master and drama teacher Mr. Kemp (played by Arthur Lowe, better known as Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army) sits on the edge of his bed singing, while his wife plays the flute in her bed (the conservative, older, teachers resist sex whereas the young men indulge in it), another hilarious but offbeat moment comes when Travis, Wallace, and Knightley have to apologise to the school Chaplain after attacking him during a military drill – the Headmaster pulls open a large drawer out of which the Chaplin sits up and shakes hands with each boy in turn, accepting their apology.

The film’s climax is suitably apocalyptic. As the school celebrates its ‘Founders’ Day’ with students, parents, alumni, and honoured guests, Travis and his friends, plus Phillips and The Girl, take up arms and shoot at everyone else from the rooftops, until shots are returned, the Headmaster pleads for a ceasefire but is brutally ignored and the film ends with all-out war between the establishment of the school and Travis and his small band of fellow rebels. 

“Violence and revolution are the only pure acts,” remarked Travis earlier in the film. If…. caused a sensation back in 1968 and, while it may not seem quite as shocking in 2018 as it has become part of popular culture, it remains a bold testament to the spirit of revolution and rebellion.  

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 22/5/18

Double Bill: British Sounds and Vent D'Est - HOME, Manchester

Screened as part of the Uprising! season of films at HOME, this double-bill of films by the Dziga Vertov Group from 1969 and 1970 capture the career of film-maker Jean-Luc Godard at a crucial juncture: radicalised after the May 1969 uprisings in Paris, Godard decided to become more proactive in pushing ahead with the Marxist idea of class struggle. To this end, he began to experiment with the form of cinema, to kick back against the conventional film-making norms and, in particular with these two films, shake off the fame which his name attracted by becoming part of a collective group of film-makers and working uncredited on the films.

British Sounds (1969) is just under an hour long and is a striking example of agitprop cinema. Shot in Britain, the film presents a heady brew of sound and vision connecting and disconnecting from one another and montage techniques in an attempt to awaken political action within the working classes. Opening with a centrally framed, and notably red, body of a car in a factory, the opening section of the film combines the diegetic sound of the factory (machines whirring away, workers talking to each other) with non-diegetic narration reading from sections of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, and what sounds like a father or teacher helping a young girl to read about revolutionary acts in British history (including Liverpool dockers striking in 1967, and the Levellers of the 17th century). As the camera tracks across the factory floor, from left to right, following the various stages of the cars being put together, the factory sounds occasional drown out the narration. Title cards punctuate the single tracking shot: one features a list of the months in the year with October written in red (linking to the revolution of 1917), another asks, “What is Work?”

The second section of the film takes us away from the factory and into the domestic setting of a landing in a house. A female voice over describes the need for feminism while a brusque male voice often drowns out the female voice with discourse about class struggle. While the sounds compete for attention, the image focuses on a nude woman walking throughout the house; while Godard and co-director Jean-Henri Roger seem genuinely concerned with linking the feminist struggle with that of the proletariat, their choice of imagery throughout this section, and particularly the lingering shot of the woman’s pubic area, takes on a less than chivalrous connotation.

The following section of the film makes the political drive of British Sounds more focused: colour footage of workers (being told to ‘Organise’ and ‘Strike’ by a whispered voice) is intercut with black and white footage of a young, upper class, man reading very strong pro-Capitalist, right-wing propaganda: workers may have to wait longer to buy homes while the rich buy up land, foreigners take up valuable state resources and should be ‘exterminated’, the wealthy are the natural leaders of the nation. The black and white footage is contrasted by colour footage of workers from the factory at the start discussing capitalism and socialism; Labour have failed to deliver a socialist government, so they decide it’s time for a new party to truly represent the workers. The film concludes with fists punching through Union Jacks printed on card; a striking image of defiance against the establishment. 

While Vent D’est is a longer work, it is nowhere near as effective as a piece of agitprop cinema as the earlier work was. Here, Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, take the formal experiment of British Sounds further: the voice-overs often bear little relation to the action happening on screen, as actors walk around in 19th century period costumes, as though they have wandered off the stage of a Western film, while a female voice over questions what the filmmakers are trying to achieve; they should “combat the bourgeois notion of representation”, reject the bourgeois entertainment, become self-critical: “Why these images? Why these sounds?” Whereas British Sounds offered an embryonic attempt to make the viewer question the juxtaposition of sound and image, it at least was more engaging on a political and aesthetic level. Vent D’est, on the other hand, felt like it was meandering and took too long to make its statement. The political messages it was trying to communicate were important but they got lost in the obsession with rejecting the existing cinematic form. 

Godard and Gorin’s next political film, Tout Va Bien, would arguably make a better job of redefining cinema and retooling it to political ends than either of these films did (although British Sounds did partially succeed). Ultimately, these films are examples of the basic tenant of Marxist revolutionary action: “It is right to rebel.” As pieces of propaganda, they do provoke thought about the state of the Capitalist system. As cinematic works, however, they may be too revolutionary for their intended audience.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 20/5/18

 

Tout Va Bien - HOME, Manchester.

To mark fifty years since the May 1968 uprisings in Paris, HOME is screening a season of films which possess a radical or revolutionary bent in form or content. Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s 1972 film, Tout Va Bien, (Everything Is All Right), kicked off the season. Set during 1971 and 1972, the film explores the legacy of the 1968 uprisings and critiques the capitalist system, consumerism, and the disorganisation of the Left which prevented it from following through on the revolutionary fervour which the May uprisings promised. 

The film’s opening title cards highlight the link between May 1968 and May 1972 as the opening of the film proceeds to deconstruct the process of filmmaking. Scenes are called and takes are clapped over the opening credits before a voice-over declares “I want to make a film.” From here the various elements of filmmaking are laid bare: numerous cheques are signed for the various cast and crew needed to make the film, our central characters ‘Her’ and ‘Him’ are described and will be played by famous stars (in this case American film star Jane Fonda and Italian-French actor and singer Yves Montand), there is a romantic relationship between them. He, Jacques, is a former French New Wave director who became disillusioned with film-making after May 1968 and became a commercial director instead, believing it to be “more honest.” She, Susan DeWitt, is an American journalist for the American Broadcast System. With our lead characters, and the other people in the film (“Farmers who farm. Workers who work. Bourgeois who bourgeois”) established, the next section of the film begins.

Jacques and Susan arrive at the Salumi meat factory to meet with the manager, Marco Guitti, as Susan plans to write a story about modern management techniques. The workers, however, are on strike and some of the workers are keeping Guitti locked up in his office. Jacques and Susan soon find themselves held captive too, while the factory’s shop steward of the CGT (the French equivalent of the TUC) arrives and decries the workers’ direct action: “You’ve got a big mouth, like all Leftists,” he yells at a worker. Throughout this section, Godard and Gorin deploy techniques which disrupt the narrative, in a style adapted from Brecht’s ‘Epic Theatre’ (which had influenced Godard’s earlier films, especially 1962’s Viva Sa Vie): there are cutaways to characters addressing the audience directly, the performance style of the actors indicates that these are ‘characters’ rather than rounded individuals, and perhaps most striking of all is the long shot of the factory set, with the fourth wall missing from each room, where the camera moves from left to right and back again. Godard and Gorin also make a striking use of colour throughout the factory section: almost every shot during this sequence of the film features the French tricolour flag within them.

The strike is eventually ended at Jacques and Susan return to their lives but both have been affected by the plight of the workers: Jacques decides to return to film-making after directing a commercial for ladies’ tights and realises that, “My job is to make films. To find new forms for new content.” Susan cannot reconcile what she wants to write about with the ‘house style’ of the ABS and is furious when her story on the factory strike is rejected. Meanwhile, the struggles continue: workers battle against police but are beaten and arrested. In a supermarket, a Communist Party member tries to sell a book outlining the party’s ideas but is unable to answer a question asked by a young student (here, Godard and Gorin are decrying the ineffectiveness of party politics) before the students cry that “Everything is free” and there is a stampede to get out with as much food and household goods as possible. As for Jacques and Susan, He and Her, their relationship is strained and no closure is given to whether they reunite or break up for good. All that matters is that, “Each is his own historian” and realises their position within the historical context (a very Marxist sentiment).

There is the danger that such a political film could become a dry lecture but Godard and Gorin’s wise mix of political commentary and narrative playfulness prevents Tout Va Bien from descending into tedious tubthumping. Perhaps the most surprising thing about seeing the film forty-six years on from its initial release is how little things have changed: directors and CEOs of companies have seen wages and bonuses rise while the workers on the shop floors have faced stagnated wages. The main difference between 1972 and 2018 is that workers seem to have accepted that “Everything is All Right” and no longer desire to fight for change. In Tout Va Bien, factory manager Marco Guitti states, “I don’t think the word ‘revolution’ has any meaning anymore.” It seems he was right.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 18/5/18

Kerrabing Film Collective Triple Bill - HOME, Manchester

The Kerrabing Film Collective is, I quote, 'a grassroots indigenous based media group consisting of over twenty members. They approach film making as a mode of self-organisation and a means of investigating contemporary social conditions of inequality. Film-making provides a mean of self-organisation and social analysis for the Kerrabing and their films represent their lives, create bonds with their land, and intervene in global images of indigineity'.

From my understanding of it, the Kerrabing are an Australian aboriginal tribe from outside modern-day Darwen. I could well be wrong. The films and the messages these films were trying to provoke were baffling and confusing at best. It is very fair to say that I left feeling very discombobulated and unsure at all what the films' purposes were.

All three films were presented in a quasi-surrealist documentary style. Cutting from genuine and period footage to modern footage using contemporary tribespeople to 'act' the parts of the narrative; sometimes in focus, sometimes deliberately out of focus, sometimes held-held and shaky, sometimes overlapping images, sometimes mixing colour with B+W, all using naturalistic dialogue with subtitles, weird music and all the time creating strange and peculiar effects to little avail since by doing so, the 'message' or 'narrative' of the film was swallowed up in effect and froppery. 

The session began with 'Mermaids, Mirror Worlds' which was in the style of a Mockumentary. And I am still unsure whether or not the idea of poisoned water from a local chemical plant making only the white people ill and them using the aboriginal children as slaves to die in their stead in order to try and stop the poisonous blow flies emerging from the mud, and to bring back the mermaids of old into the crystal clear water again is grounded purely in Aboriginal folklore or does actually have any truth in it. Intercut with seemingly real news footage of man's greed and culpability in producing poisonous pharmaceuticals etc, it does have a certain gravitas, but when the voices had been manipulated to sound like the kidnapper on a telephone in the Hollywood movie, it makes it comical. This was the most inaccessible of the three, and also, I think perhaps the longest too.

This was followed by Night Time Go, which actually started with promise as actual wartime footage was shown and we learned that the indigenous tribes were being sent away from their coastal homelands to internment camps deep in the interior. The particular tribe in question was naturally the Kerrabing and they were trucked and trained against their will to a place called Katherine some 300km away from their ancestral home. The film soon took on a surreal and non-naturalistic quality though, and the more I watched the increasingly difficult I found it to follow. I have no idea if or how the situation was ever resolved and I wasn't told either, I don't think, why they were being moved in the first place.

To finish the trilogy we were shown, Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams. In this film, again with minimalist naturalistic dialogue and strange camera angles, we were given different perspectives on why the boat they were travelling in broke down and left them stranded. Despite it being filmed in 2016 it said the action took place in 1953 but nothing about the film was in any way evocative of that decade, not even the motor boat. In the end, it was decided, I think, that it was the fault of the 'living' ancestors. A very bizarre film which failed to engage me on any level, as it seemed to serve no purpose and have no through story (beginning, middle, end).

In conclusion, I think it would be only right to say that such films are perhaps better understood if someone has personal experience of the lives and customs of aboriginal tribes. For me, a fifty-something middle-class white Brit who has never been to Australia nor ever met an aboriginal in his life, the films were curiosities at best.

Reviewer - Chris Benchley
on - 12/5/18 

Los Adioses - HOME, Manchester.

Natalia Beristain’s 2017 biopic of Mexican poet, essayist, and novelist, Rosario Castellanos formed part of HOME’s 2018 ¡Viva! Spanish & Latin American Festival. Castellanos was a driving force for feminism in Mexico, as well as an acclaimed writer. Los Adioses depicts the struggle between Castellanos’ acclaimed career and her turbulent personal life, specifically her relationship with philosophy lecturer Ricardo Guerra.

Throughout the film, there is a constant interplay between the present of Rosario (Karina Gidi) in the 1960s and 1970s and her younger self in the 1950s, where she begins to not only find her voice as a poet but initially commence her relationship with Guerra. The way the scenes in the 1960s, where Rosario is reunited with Ricardo after several years and they recommence their relationship, and those set in the 1950s, are edited together recalled the work of British film-maker Nicolas Roeg, whose intercutting of past and present in films such as The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), and Bad Timing (1981), is done in such a way as to appear seamless. This feeling is at its strongest in the opening scenes in the film, where we go from the older Rosario and Ricardo in bed in the 1960s in one shot to the younger versions of themselves in the 1950s and the framing of the actors playing the younger and older couple is staged as to be identical, with several echoed lines of dialogue between the time periods.

The relationship between the younger Rosario (Tessa Ia) and Ricardo (Pedro De Tavira) is one of intensity: their first meeting is at a Communist party forum where Ricardo interrupts and questions Rosario. Later, after Rosario has her first poems published, they meet in a bookstore and Ricardo shows Rosario a book of poetry which he says made him think of her. Rosario admits she loves the poems and Ricardo steals the book for her: “Poetry,” he tells her outside the shop where she voices her disapproval, “is priceless.” In the 1960s, when the two are brought back together and marry, the older Ricardo (Daniel Giménez Cacho), becomes increasingly jealous of Rosario’s success and the two become locked in a struggle over what role Rosario should have: acclaimed writer and lecturer, or domesticated wife. The fragile relationship is strained by the arrival of their son, Gabriel, and Ricardo begins to be unfaithful, until Rosario confronts him in a scene which mirrors that of their younger selves meeting for the first time. Rosario is last seen living alone, a flickering lamp on a desk uneasily hinting at the electrical accident which claimed her life.

The performances from the four core cast members are riveting, with Ia capturing the innocence and introverted nature of the young Rosario and Tavira bringing a real sense of swagger to the young, rebellious Ricardo. As the older Rosario, Gidi brings a real raw emotion to her performance, as Rosario is confronted by personal tragedy and her desire to make her voice heard: “I won’t stop being a mother, I won’t stop being a teacher, and I won’t stop being a writer!” she tells Ricardo during one of their arguments, after he suggests she stops teaching at university to raise Gabriel. Cacho exudes the right amount of sleaze for the older, lecherous lecturer that Ricardo becomes, and communicates the frustration he has with being made to play second fiddle to his wife’s success both internally and externally.

Beristain’s direction is tight, literally so: there are few long shots in the film, the camera instead restricting itself to mid or close shots to bring across this very personal exploration of the turbulent life of one of Mexico’s most important 20th century literary figures and thinkers. Two scenes stand out in the film: the first is following another miscarriage for the older Rosario, where she and Ricardo sit in silence in the car following her discharge from hospital, with only the sound of rain beating down on the car; the other scene focuses on the younger Rosario, back home in Chiapas, separated from Ricardo, as she cuts her hair short in a statement of intent to get over him. Both scenes are intensely private moments in the life of Rosario and convey so much without any dialogue.

Los Adioses is a solid drama and while it lacks any genuinely gut-punching moments, it does shed some light into the life and career of an important writer and thinker from Mexico, and is a timely reminder of the struggle women face to forge their own careers when many men would prefer them to settle for a domestic life, a struggle which has gained extra momentum with recent discussions around the gender pay gap and the #MeToo movement around the male abuse of power over women. It is important that films like this highlight her struggle so that others may carry it on.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 29/4/18

Estiu 1993 - HOME, Manchester.

Estiu 1993 - or to give it it's English title, Summer 1993 - is a Catalan film screened at HOME, Manchester, as part of their Viva Festial; 24 days of film, theatre, art and more from Spain and Latin America.

Quite apart from it being in the Catalan language, and therefore from my point of view, extremely interesting on that level alone; this is Carla Simon's first time as a screenwriter / director, and is indeed a very impressive debut.

It is a hugely autobiographical account of a 6 year old girl, Frida, being sent away from Barcelona after the death of her mother to live in a rambling farmhouse in the mountainous countryside pueblo to live with her uncle, aunt and their 3 year old daughter Anna. Frida finds it incredibly difficult to adjust to this new life, and despite moments of uncontrolled youthful joy, she is traumatised by the whole upheaval and change to her norm.

Beautifully filmed, using many close-up and intimate shots; the middle-distance shots seemingly filmed with a hand-held camera giving the impression that it was a home-cinema , giving us the audience a glimpse into the private quotidian mundanity  of this girl's life. The open, wide shots are so seldom they come as quite a surprise. Moody, wordless, inactive sections of film accompany sections of colourful outbursts, but always the dialogue is kept to an absolute minimum, and we listen to the adults talking about Frida, from Frida's perspective. The film feels very French is concept and realisation.  It is also worth noting that the mountain location for this film was the same place that Simon herself was sent to live when she was 6.

What makes this film even more compelling however is the spellbinding and disquietingly real performances from its two youngest stars. 6 year old Frida is played by Lala Artigas, and the tiny and slightly chubby 3 year old Anna is Paula Robies.  Both of these youngsters' expressions and attitude throughout are completely flawless, and they have the majority of screen time too. Pitting this against the excellent and realistic adult portrayals, this film is a masterclass in minimalist acting.

We never really are told what Frida's parents died of, and the film explores this in a little depth. It was AIDS. but in 1993, so little was understood of this and much shame was attached to it, that even the adults don't really know or understand. This takes Frida even more into herself and starts to talk to her mum through a statue of the virgin Mary in the garden, and take out her frustrations on her younger sister, Anna.

There are no surprises in terms of how Frida reacts and abreacts to her situation - it is an almost text-book psychotic reaction to her feelings of alienation and sadness, which once again, despite their sympathy, the adults truly fail to see or understand.

The jazz-infused score helps enormously to bring about this juxtaposition between seeing things from the adult or the child's perspective and every time we hear the jazz we know that the adults are going to do something to the detriment of poor Frida, believing it 'to be for the best for the poor girl'.

A beautifully observed, slow moving film which, even on the last frame will have you questioning and second-guessing. The film gives no answers, and is uncompromising in its honesty and simplicity.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 28/4/18